(Photo: James Ewing)
New York’s Park Avenue Armory is an insatiable monster of a space, able to accommodate art fairs and the Royal Shakespeare Company, atonal German operas and homespun missions to Mars, all with what feels like acreage to spare. Until now. Paul McCarthy’s “WS” manages to fill every orifice of the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thomson Drill Hall, oozing under the bleachers and out into the period rooms to tell the grimmest of fairy tales—the artist’s debaucherous take on Snow White, or White Snow (WS). Bring on the depraved Disney magic, because through August 4, the Park Avenue Armory is where nightmares come true.
“Let’s not beat around the bush, this is a really tough work,” said Tom Eccles, consulting curator at the Armory, at Tuesday’s press preview. “It’s painful.” Bracketing a kind of hellish studio backlot are giant elevated screens playing a four-channel video that follows WS from the forest—which alternates from a Rousseauian jungle studded with tropical megablooms to just plain trippy, depending on the lighting—into the home of the dwarves, an oafish, mentally challenged, and pants-free bunch who favor Yale and UCLA hoodies. A series of increasingly raucous house parties ends with Walt Paul (McCarthy himself, stealing the show as a Walt Disney-like character who unravels from inscrutable butler mode to a kind of coked-up Walter Matthau) on all fours in the basement “rumpus room,” sodomized with a broomstick—as if Bosch and Brueghel teamed up on an alternate ending for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
The seven-hour feature, culled from some 350 hours of footage (“We couldn’t even watch it all,” says McCarthy), takes place mostly inside a thoroughly trashed, gravy-and-chocolate smeared replica of the artist’s childhood home in Salt Lake City. The ranch-style house has been recreated in three-quarter-scale, a choice that, when combined with the tightly shot, loosely edited cacophony of sins, foodstuffs, and liquids, makes for a claustrophobia- and queasiness-inducing viewing experience.